It’s always tempting to fetishize single-shot sequences — to look for visible seams in their making, to wonder how many times it took to nail the final take, to get caught up in the meticulous, Milton Bradley’s Mouse Trap choreography of it all. Some are great, some are merely show-offy, and others go from bravura to self-indulgent simply by outstaying their welcome by 30 seconds. It’s usually just look-ma-no-cuts razzle dazzle, a bit of filmmaking virtuosity designed to have viewers wondering, “How did they do that?” The more pertinent question, the one that’s rarely if ever asked, is: “Why did they do that?”
You won’t find yourself asking that second Q after seeing the opening of Romain Gavras Athena. A French soldier’s face fills the frame as he walks to the front of a press conference. His name is Abdel (Dali Benssalah), and he’s standing next to the chief of police as he addresses yet another act of brutality perpetrated by cops against people of color in Paris’s Athena estates. The difference is that Imir, the 13-year-old boy murdered by law enforcement, was his brother and the youngest of four in his family. He urges people to remain calm when they march tomorrow to protest. He’s clearly emotional, but the pain is kept in check. Abdel is not standing in front of this crowd to mourn. He’s there as a representative of the state.
As he speaks, the camera begins to turn away and drift over the heads of the journalists and onlookers standing in front of the police precinct, slowly coming to rest on a twentysomething man with wispy facial hair. This is Karim (Sami Slimane, in the dictionary definition of a breakout role); he, too, is a blood relative to the victim and the military officer addressing the throng. Panning down, we see his hands are holding a Molotov cocktail. It’s lit, and thrown, and pandemonium breaks loose. Karim and his fellow Athenians storm the building, causing havoc. They pry loose a locker filled with guns and throw it in the back of a van that’s burst through a back door. Then, amidst retaliation from precinct’s occupants, they pile into the vehicle and speed off. As they and other cars convoy speed down the road, a boy waves the French flag out of a car window. This guerilla army is soon back at their estate, looking down from a perimeter and waiting for their enemy to storm the gates. Twelve minutes, and: cut.
There are a series of other long takes spread throughout Gavras’ siege film-cum-cinematic bomb strike, some of which center on Abdel and Karim’s other sibling — Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), the housing project’s resident drug kingpin — and some which trail a rookie policeman (Anthony Bajon) in over his riot-helmeted head. But this first sequence is key to everything that the Franco-Greek filmmaker (he’s the son of the equally politically incendiary director Costa Gavras) is trying to accomplish. It’s spectacular and quite a feat, for sure. More importantly, it immerses you in the action, gives you an incredible sense of place and an even better sense of the stakes, and by letting it unfold in real time, reminds you how it just takes a spark or two to quickly turn into an inferno. A colleague has referred to this as “Fury Road in the Hood,” and given the woozy mix of adrenaline rush and white-hot social commentary that the film traffics in, the comparison tracks. Athena does not want to inspire an uprising. It is an uprising, whatever the digital equivalent of 24 frames per second is.
Gavras has also talked about this being a Greek tragedy as much as a boys-in-le-banlieue drama, which gives it a timelessness that goes beyond 21-font headline retreads and Op-Ed–spolitation. Not that police brutality, abuse of power and state violence against non-white citizens are a modern phenomena. Far from it. Rather, the director and his cowriters Elias Belkeddar and Ladj Ly (whose own 2019 film Les Miserables plays out a somewhat similar scenario from the cops’ P.O.V.) want to harken back to the idea that, for all of the external forces that have brought these three brothers — the authority, the rebel and the entrepreneur — to this moment of reckoning, the seeds of their downfall had already been planted before then.
Athena was the goddess of war; she was also the goddess of wisdom, however, and even if Karim’s request to have the cops release the names of Imir’s killers is granted, the knowledge that “justice” won’t really be done is something all three are aware of. Karim is ready to fight the power, Moktar wants to protect his business, and Abdel wants to keep the status quo and broker a peace. They’re all powerless against the pull of fate. They have to play their parts in this endgame to the bitter conclusion. And play them they do, as the sound and fury of a revolution that’s televised, streamed and memed mixes with the movie’s incredible, ancient-choral-meets-EDM score by the music producer/composer Surkin. If these downtrodden citizens of France can’t get égalité or fraternité, they will damn well get their liberté and go out in a blaze of glory, or at least a blaze.
If you know Gavras’ name outside of cinephile circles, it’s likely because of the music video he did for the Justice song “Stress,” a conservative’s nightmare/Clockwork Orange-lite cacophony of violence that ended up getting banned. His first film, Our Day Will Come (2010), is a road movie that expands on the notion of his equally notorious music video for M.I.A.’s “Born Free.” His follow-up, The World Is Yours (2018), is a crime drama that proved he could be stylish if nothing else. He’s never been shy about raging against machines or courting controversy, but he’s also been easy — too easy — to categorize as a hipster’s-hipster filmmaker, someone with more technique and willingness to tweak taboos than thoughtfulness.
Athena kills that notion dead. It’s a movie that utilizes every bit of Gavras’ abundant chops and marshals them to make a coherent statement, tapping brains and heart and spleen in the name of forcing you to recognize what he’s putting in front of you. (A Netflix production, it begins streaming on the service on September 23rd but will be playing in select theaters starting September 9th — and if Netflix hadn’t recognized that this is a movie meant to be seen on a massive screen and with a crowd, then it doesn’t deserve to be in the moviemaking business. See it big if that’s an option.) Whether you think its ending is a cop-out (literally) and lets certain parties off the hook is a matter of debate, but it’s a film that demands debate regardless. It’s also the sort of experiential, gutting, near-visionary type of work that restores your faith in what people with movie cameras and passion and storytelling can do. Should the endeavor also include a real suburb turned into a giant film set, all the better. Just don’t think of it as a filmmaker’s folly. It’s a dispatch from a frontline that’s more boundaryless than ever.